A/N: I'm back! For realsies this time. The fic is finished, even edited, and compatible with the new MCU canon to boot..
I had a stab at responding to all the reviews that were made in my absence, but to be honest I don't think I'll get to them all. I'll try to respond to them henceforth.
June 11th, 2011
"While it feels good to be right," Stark started, "by which I mean great, what do we do now?"
Agent Hill had been brought in; her tech minions had noticed the connection between the now one-eyed museum curator in Stuttgart and a nearby theft of iridium at his place of work. Meanwhile, Agent Romanoff had plucked the arrows out of the dead bodies and had coldly declared it to be Agent Barton's work.
Stark had been the first to point out that the stolen iridium could be used to stabilize a portal made by the Tesseract for larger periods of time than Selvig's original setup. While Banner and Foster had had to spend long minutes figuring out the details of it, eventually his hypothesis had been verified, and now he felt the need crow out his victory.
They were seated around the council table at the bridge, deliberating as to their next course of action. They had Loki, and they had an idea of what he was up to—at least as far as the Tesseract was concerned. Knowing where to proceed from there was proving difficult, as Fury's initial chat with him had proved unfruitful—and Harry hadn't prompted Hermione at all about what Loki had told her in private, leaving her all sorts of shades of unsettled and unable to concentrate.
"Romanoff's up next," Fury responded.
"What are you going to do, good cop bad cop?" Stark asked skeptically. "Do they even have cops on Asgard? Thor, don't answer that. Seriously though, if the scary man with the eyepatch isn't going to get him to talk, why do we think his apprentice will?"
"It worked on you just fine," Romanoff interjected irritably, but Fury was already shaking his head.
"Do you have a better idea?" Fury asked.
Stark leaned back in his seat, looking supremely smug. "As a matter of fact, I do. Has anyone else noticed that all of Loki's magical mumbo jumbo is exactly the same color? You know, that very particular shade of electric blue that drag queens smear all over their faces."
"Is analyzing Loki's fashion choices really of tactical significance here?" Rogers, impatient at the slow pace of things.
Stark waggled his eyebrows. "While we're on that subject, I have to say your skintight stars and stripes getup is pre-tty distracting while we're doing the fighting thing—"
"I'm sorry," Rogers interrupted, "but I didn't notice you fighting at all—"
It was Fury's turn to cut someone off. "Stark, if you have something, spit out."
Stark scowled, but seemed to relent. "Well, fine then. As theatrical as our diva is, I don't think he'd take style over substance. So—what's with the identical blue color between Loki's pointy thing and the Tesseract? I checked: they emit the exact same wavelength, just as two nuclear fuel rods might. Coincidence? I doubt it."
"No offense," Banner put in, "but that's pretty close to the color of your Arc reactor as well."
"And the Casket of Ancient Winters," Thor added. "Surely these magics are not all the same."
Stark was shaking his head. "No, those are different electric blues. Didn't you guys ever spend time with the Crayola crayon box? They don't even appear the same on the visible wavelength, let alone gamma where all this magical mumbo jumbo seems to be happening. And they are exactly the same. Walmart lightbulbs don't even manage that kind of similarity with this kind of consistency."
"Did Loki have that scepter before he came to Earth, back on Asgard?" Jane asked, now clearly piqued.
"No," Thor and Hermione both said at the same time. Thor looked at Hermione askance, as if shocked that she might dare talk on the subject of his brother. Hermione's fists clenched beneath the table, but was unwilling to confront him; Thor was the one to carry on. "Not in all my time with him on Asgard did I see such a device, nor have I seen such a weapon in the armory. He must have acquired it during his time on Earth."
"Or wherever he was after you pushed him away from Asgard," Hermione interjected tiredly. "I know the Wizarding world isn't always the best at keeping track of superpowered artifacts, but the design of that is unlike anything I've ever seen even hinted at in our texts. And as much as I hate to say it, I agree with Stark—the energy signature of the scepter is remarkably like that of the Tesseract, or at least what little I was able to see of it." The connection between the scepter and the Tesseract could be similar to what was between the beaded bag and Loki, or herself and her vial of flame. Her mind was whirling. "Even so, this is assuming that they don't just happen to work the same way. Two nuclear reactor fuel rods emit damn near the exact same wavelength because they're the same technology, not because they're magically linked. It makes sense that alien technology operating with similar paradigms might match in any number of arbitrary capacities.
Jane popped in. "So… it's a firm maybe, until we've run more tests."
Fury, however, had already made up his mind. "Stark, Granger, Banner, Foster, Potter—get on seeing if we can use that to trace the Tesseract somehow. Romanoff—let's see if we can get anything out of the man himself. Thor, Rogers—rest up for the moment."
Hermione swallowed. Assuming she could even think straight, with Loki so close by and yet being unable to speak with him further—with ten thousand theories running about in her head, every single one screaming to be resolved, as nothing ever could be with the self proclaimed god of lies.
Still, she dutifully followed the others back to the lab, keeping herself quiet lest her anxiety betray her. Uncharacteristically Stark was also silent; he waited until the lab doors were closed behind them before turning around and addressing them all in a stage whisper. "You know," he said, "I think Fury is hiding something."
"Aren't we all?" Banner asked. His tone was tired, but the inlaid bitterness made Hermione flinch as she went to the computer she and Jane had been sharing. Too familiar.
"He makes me feel all a manner of judged, and I don't think he's got the right to do so." Stark turned about and leaned back against his lab table, addressing everyone in the room. "In fact—I'm starting to think that he's no better than Loki."
This had everyone in the room start. "I haven't seen him gouge anyone's eye out," Jane cut in, exasperated, "unless there's a better story behind his eyepatch than what I heard in the cafeteria. Do you have any proof?"
Stark only smiled. "Of course you want proof, I'm surrounded by scientists for once and it's awesome. Show a little skepticism! Bring it on, I can take it."
"Do I look skeptical enough for you?" Banner put in at a deadpan, eyebrows raised. Jane smothered a smile; even Hermione felt her lips tug up a bit at their antics.
"Well, get ready to look impressed." Stark paused for dramatic effect. "I hacked SHIELD."
"Why?" Harry asked. He worked for a government, same as Hermione; it made sense that he'd be taken aback by the act of gleefully exposing its secrets. How well trained they both were, she thought caustically to herself. "There's dirt enough on everyone if you squint."
"Well, 'Project Pegasus' has him wallowing in the mud."
"I don't enjoy mudracking," Hermione cut in, snapping in her impatience, "so spill."
Stark pouted a bit. Doubtless he had planned a grand reveal. "The Tesseract was going to be used to remotely charge high-powered energy weapons," he said. "Fury's not looking for so much a 'warm candle' as a fucking firecracker to light mankind's collective ass on fire. The downside of energy weapons has always been the power source. Well, Fury found one-the Tesseract-which we're now playing fetch for, and where there's a will, there's a way, right on to World War Three. There you have it kids. How does Saving Private Ryan sound with lasers?"
"I'm hardly hurt," Banner said, acerbic. "The leader of a secret inter-government organization with undisclosed funding sources didn't tell us that they were designing better ways to blow each other up? I'd demand a refund on my taxes if they weren't."
Stark scowled. "Look, that's the least of it. They've also been developing ways to replicate your mutation, just like they been out to duplicate Captain Righteous ever since he became a capsicle. Getting a pattern here? Kinda sorta maybe?"
Harry, this time. "I take it Stark Industries doesn't do much government contracting."
"Not any more, for this exact reason!" Stark's hands flapped about in exasperation. "Can't even trust them with a mathematician, they'll try to come up with unbreakable algorithms or some bullshit. We no longer develop weapons, except for judicious use by the hands of yours truly. Fury, I wouldn't trust with a kazoo." He held his hands open. "What, no outrage, none at all? What about at the thought of a virus to wipe out all you wand-waving folks? I have to say, he's got you well trained—"
Before Hermione could cut in and question further, Jane cried out in exasperation. "Look, we're all skeptical. Is there anyone here who hasn't been screwed over by SHIELD at some point or another? Show of hands? No?" Jane only stopped for a millisecond before carrying on. "They confiscated my diary. They upended my cereal boxes. They deleted my iPod playlists. I am very pissed off at SHIELD. I'm so pissed off, in fact, that I've opted to keep working for them just to keep an eye on my tech that they would steal anyway. No one owns me, least of all Fury, I don't care what my contract says. But right now we have a crisis on our hands and he's the only one with the sense to gather us together and point us in the right direction. I'm just grateful none of us have to face Loki alone. He'd tear any of us to shreds, but together maybe we have a chance to think ahead of his game. We can have a wonderful heartwarming discussion about how awful the government is later, after we've got this one megalomaniac sorted out."
"Yes ma'am," Stark said, raising his brows and looking over at them skeptically. "But we can still be angry about this, right? Super angry? Form a subcommittee and talk about it some more?"
"I'd rather leave politics to the professional hot air balloons," Jane shot back, hands now akimbo at her hips. "But seriously, we've got to keep our heads on straight here." She turned towards Hermione. "Don't you agree?"
Bringing Hermione into support the point felt absurd; Hermione was the most lost of them all. The temptation to slip into self pity and nostalgia almost threatened to overwhelm her for a moment—for her to simply nod meekly, to say something supportive in benign anger.
Then Hermione remembered the ghosting feel of his cold hands on her jawbone—and, toes curling at that fresh memory of mixed terror and delight— steeled herself to do what she needed to do to sort this out. "If we're scientists, let's prove it," she said, her voice firmer than she felt. "We're supposed to be the logical, rational ones here. Focus on one task at a time." She braced herself internally, and spun out a half-truth: "And— if it comes time to face down Fury himself— there is no team I'd be happier to take him down with."
Banner and Jane were more obviously startled by the outburst in confidence; Stark just cocked an eyebrow. "Yes ma'am. Keeping the world order out of the hands of fashionable devils in black leather trenchcoats. New prime directive."
Jane opened her mouth. "The Prime Directive is actu— "
"What was this about focus?" Banner chided softly, arms crossed.
Everyone managed at least a half smile at this. Hermione breathed a sigh of relief. The more focused they were on specific tasks, the less likely they'd be to question her about the specifics of her connection with Loki. She didn't even have answers for herself yet, and had a feeling whatever interrogation Natasha had in mind wouldn't bring them any closer either.
"I'll go requisition Loki's staff," Hermione started. Still, she needed a breather—and some time, however brief, to examine the staff on her own before it was handed over to the group. "I think it's been placed in the vault already. We'll start by checking into Stark's hunch in a bit more detail by doing a more detailed spectrographic analysis of the sceptre. Get that ready?"
She had made it exactly one step out of the door before she pivoted right into Hary's chest, almost colliding. He caught her by the shoulder. His face was serious and drawn.
Her breath caught. He had every reason to suspect her a traitor, in ways that no one else here did.
She opened her mouth to speak, but Harry beat her to it. "I'll walk with you. Let's talk." And just like that a Silencing charm fell all around them, white noise that would make them appear simply as silent friends walking side by side to any cameras.
"You weren't just friends," he started, breaking the ice after a few awkward steps.
Harry was suddenly every inch an Auror, never a tone she had had directed her way before. The shift put her on guard even before the words began to pour from his mouth, cool and confident. "You never slept together. Never had a morning after conversation. Never talked about your feelings. I get it. That's always your MO, you've never let anyone get close, and you never get closure." He cocked his head. Hermione was breathing fast; she had forgotten that half an Auror's training was in human intel. He pushed on before she could fathom a response. "Loki's the one who came closest, and that's hurt enough to make you never want to be close with anything else ever again, because that's all you know. Loki. That trust hurts. Have you ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome? We see it all the time in the field— people who would unwittingly hide, or help, people doing very terrible things because of that dream of intimacy lost, imagined in the back of their heads. The promise that maybe there's something else, something more. That feeling that they have to believe that there is something to justify all the pain they've felt at the end of it all."
Hermione's eyes were growing hot, but they kept walking, her eyes resolutely ahead. She knew what he was speaking of, even if he didn't say it directly: she was no better than the loved ones of Death Eaters during the last War, unwilling to share their secrets in order to stop their husbands, wives, children, parents. "I want this stopped," she said softly, "just as much as you do."
"We won't be able to stop him if we don't know everything, and you're still hiding things. Harry's pace slowed, and he turned to face her. Illogically, all she could think about was how this would look on Agent Hill's security cameras, whether they had an algorithm reading their lips. Doubtless Fury did not trust them. Nobody trusted anybody. "It was so obvious out there, Hermione, it—it hurt, that you would still lie to me, after we last talked in my office. I know it takes time to come clean. It seems like Loki really did a number on your trust issues. Got it. God of Lies. I can only imagine. But this is exactly what Stark was complaining about with Fury—keeping secrets with good intentions, but that actually being what fouls it all up. Hermione, if you know something, anything else about Loki and why he's doing this—if you can make sense of what he said back in the opera hall to you— we might be able to work with it. So please. Tell me. Even if you won't tell them."
"I don't know what he was talking about either!" she snapped, something in her cracking like a broken bone. "Believe me, it's been turning over in my head for years now, what happened on Asgard, and none of it makes any more sense to me than it does to you. I get your distrust, but it's not warranted. I think, personally, he was just trying to distract us, by confusing me, and therefore you." She blinked back angry tears— angry that she only had a half-truth to offer him, angry that she was forced to feed him a half-lie. "Or maybe he actually is just completely mad. I don't know. If there were secret messages in there meant for me, I'm as much in the dark as you are. I'm of the mind to ignore—what it was that he was saying, and to go with what we can actually know, what we can tell isn't lies and misinformation and malice. We've got a possible connection between the Tesseract and his sceptre, a way to maybe track it if Stark's right. I think that's going to be a lot more fruitful than trying to decrypt his psychobabble."
Loki. There was a ghost of him on the palms of her hands, remembering the cool heat of his chest and the unbearable fire of his cold eyes as he'd look into her. And as the misdirection spun off her tongue like off the well worn shuttle of a loom, as she stared steadfastly into Harry's earnest green eyes, she felt Loki closer than ever before.
"Alright," Harry said softly, his eyes slipping away from her face as they fell into step once more. "I believe you."
Hermione almost wished he hadn't; surely then, shame wouldn't gnaw at her soul as a wolf might a trapped deer, howling and desperate and afraid.
Checking the sceptre out of the vault it had been placed barely an hour before seemed to take just as long as putting it in there had. After Agent Hill waived their way through the security clearances, it was brought back to the lab under yet another heavily armed guard in a sealed capsule. Banner, Stark, Foster, Harry and Hermione all stood around with bated breath while it was unsealed with a pneumatic hiss on the lab table before them.
Then Stark shooed the guards away with undignified clucking noises, and grinned boyishly at the rest of the group. "Dig in!" he exclaimed, as one might into a Yuletide roast.
Banner, Stark, and Foster settled in with their spectrographic equipment; Harry and Hermione with their own barrage of tests for traps and curses, trying to unweave the enchantments around the device. Two approaches, Hermione mused, two paradigms, solving the same puzzle. And taking turns, no less.
Well, solving might have been a bit generous. "It has an incredibly strong energy signature," Foster started, frowning, "but it's hard for me to pin it down. It's reading something different every picosecond—sometimes only a little bit different, sometimes a lot different, and I haven't detected a pattern yet."
"JARVIS, see if you can find one," Stark said absently, also frowning. He had gone from excited schoolboy to serious scientist in less time than it took to drop a wrench. "We need this quantified. Screw this qualitative anthropological subjective Homo sapiens bullshit. No offense."
"Yes, sir," his AI responded from— were those the lab speakers Stark had hacked? But whatever thought Hermione had was quickly dismissed by those of her labmates.
"We can at least tell that the signature is very concentrated," Banner added, "but disperses rapidly with distance from the crystal. It's clearly not obeying any logarithmic or regular half life pattern, though—it's not behaving as the types of radiation indicated in the spectrograph should."
"English?" Harry asked, only slightly embarrassed.
"It's not acting like a nuclear fuel rod and the Muggles are surprised," Hermione said dryly, but she was still piqued. If Stark's AI was as fast as everyone said it was, let alone as fast as Stark claimed it to be, JARVIS should have picked up a pattern in the fluctuations by now. That it hadn't indicated one…
…she looked down into the pulsing core of the blue crystal, and thought a very terrible thought.
In modern studies of the human mind, patterns could be teased out out—alpha waves, delta waves, very broad strokes that gave the vague contours of consciousness. Some of the more excruciatingly obvious details could also be sussed from the cerebral soup: the feedback loop of an epileptic seizure, for example, or the flare of an orgasm. But the low level noise, the true trick of consciousness, was just that—noise, every bit as incomprehensible as the babble of an ordinary stream was to the physicists tasked to studying the finer points of fluid dynamics.
Hermione felt the uneven thrumming of the crystal, scarcely paces away, watched the leaping flickers on their screens, and could not help but feel that she was being observed by someone far more frightening than Fury.
Who is watching you? she had asked Loki, barely an hour ago, and had been answered with talk of Death, with a capital D. Somehow, that blue light was mocking her, twinkling from within the cradle of scientific instruments that were failing to unlock its secrets.
At first, she thought she was shaking, physically affected by existential dread. Then, she realized it was the whole helicarrier. It was approximately with that realization that the sceptre shattered its shackles with an explosion of blinding blue, and the whole world went to hell.
She came back to awareness too dizzy to know whether she was standing or on the ground; as it turned out, she had landed slumped in a roughly sitting position against one of the lab tables.
"Is everyone alright?" she heard Harry ask.
A chorus of mixed curses greeted him; all voices were accounted for. She heaved a sigh of relief. Good. Not the worst start to a crisis she'd ever had.
Stark followed up with something considerably less measured: "What the hell just happened?!"
"From the sound of it," Bruce said, out of sight though she could hear the crackle of shattered equipment as he stood, "engine failure."
Meaning, one way or another, Loki was getting his rescue, though they still hadn't the faintest idea why he had decided to pay them a visit. A distraction? It seemed unlikely, but his whole plan as she had pieced it together so far hadn't made an ounce of sense.
Stark was already up and brushing the dust from his Black Sabbath t-shirt like it was from the finest of Armani. "And Fury apparently wants me to assist in putting it back together with Captain Serious and one of our resident demi-egos. Find something useful to do, or not, but I'm out." And just like that he took for the door at a jog, already shouting quick directives at Jarvis.
Harry turned to Hermione. She took this as her moment to start easing herself from the wreckage, wincing as her body began to make a litany of complaints. "I'm going to guess he's coming for Hermione," he said. "Banner, can you get Foster somewhere—not here? Out of the blast radius, if it comes to that."
Jane was already protesting at the thought of playing damsel in distress, but weakly; Bruce looked as ready to get out of the way as she did. "It wouldn't be a good idea if the Other Guy decides to he wants to take Loki's party invitation," he responded by way of agreement. They made their way out, both mouths set in grim lines. Adventure indeed, Hermione thought grimly at Jane's shell shocked face.
Harry looked towards Hermione, wand already drawn. "Comms are down, or at least mine is. Yours?"
She nodded. "I'm getting some kind of interference on mine as well. I think Loki's trying to keep everyone isolated."
To her surprise, Harry shook his head. "He's still in his prison cell, right? He's going to have to be released from the outside. If we book it, we might be able to intercept his rescue party."
Her stomach twisted at the thought of Harry being privy to another of her encounters with her almost-lover, but she nodded all the same. Better than letting Loki escape unhindered. "Round two?"
Harry smiled wolfishly. "Now that I know a few of his tricks."
And they were off—adrenaline pulsing fiercely enough in her veins to ignore the myriad of minor injuries, weaving between terrified technicians who had clearly never been in an actual shipboard emergency before.
When they reached his prison cell—with no sign of hostiles, oddly enough—Loki was clearly waiting for them, ten thousand times more terrifying than in the video feed. All the high tech gadgetry in the world wouldn't make her feel safe in his presence. "My little lioness brings a pet," he said, baring his teeth. "Tell me, does he also roar when I pull his tail?"
"Worse," Harry said, raising his wand, "he bites." He advanced on the glass cage. They had both seen Fury's little spiel; there was a little lever and right now, it was the only leverage they had on him. "You had better talk, and fast, or whomever's coming to get you might have to pick up the pieces from somewhere along the eastern seaboard."
Loki made a tsking sound, hands laced behind his back, all confidence and cool facade. "You ought not threaten the one with the upper hand," he replied from within the cage, "or you might find yourself swatted like the little insect you are."
Harry scowled, and looked over at Hermione. "I take it Legilimancy is out of the question."
She nodded curtly, meeting Loki's eyes as she did so. There was a pressure at the front of her mind, like a hand placed on a fevered brow, but he did not push in; she wasn't sure if she could win this time, though she yearned for the confidence to say she could. "Even if either of us got in," she said, "it'd be like putting your hand into a bag of cats, all claws and crazy."
"And wouldn't you know," Loki murmured, his slivered smile delivering a sharpness in her chest. She ignored the barb and prayed that Harry would not lose his confidence in her. "Little lioness, you've had us all around your little finger at some point. Such plans you've made, with those pearls of yours. Tell me, are you ready for some show and tell yet, or do you want to spend some more time bumbling about guessing at charades?"
She shook her head, though her heart skipped a beat at the reference to her treasures. "Earth would be a nice pawn," she said impatiently, "but I doubt you'd actually have the patience to be king of a species you openly scorn. Humans are much messier than what they groomed you for on Asgard. You'd hardly be able to consider yourself your brother's equal even then, at least until you've found yourself an army that can challenge an established race of demigods." She pursed her lips, looking intently at Loki. His grin had only widened at her string of speculations; she wondered if it was in mockery or appreciation. "Bought with the Tesseract, I'd guess. Or made."
Loki laughed. "Ah, no… though that mind of yours has such enticing thoughts. Have you considered a career in world domination?"
Hermione stepped forward, narrowing her eyes. The world had diminished down to just the two of them, Harry quite inconsequential. "I don't know who you're serving. Death seems to be coming up an awful lot in all of this. But I can't imagine you serving anyone for very long."
His grin turned wolfish. "We'll all serve Death, in the end. Maybe some are willing to do so a little earlier than most."
"I can't imagine what you'd have to gain other than some more pointy sticks for your collection."
"Two things," Loki said, "of course, the very most important things of them all." He paused. "Proper vengeance on those who'd claim to be my blood—and you."
"Me, or what's mine?" She already knew at this point that he knew about her possession of the Elder Wand and the Resurrection Stone from his earlier jibe about pearls; she gave up on the charade of not knowing, and prayed Harry would give her a chance to explain later. He always had. "Are you trusting so much in some child's story about what a Master of Death can do, that you can whisk power from your own master so easily?"
The thought was heady. even as it slipped out of her mouth. Being a Master of Death would be within reach for her, too; just one more pearl at her ear, only a betrayal of Harry away, where he trustingly stood at the control panel behind her. She didn't need Loki. She'd never need him ever again. She would be able to stop him, end all this madness, and it'd only take the quickest of curses to take the Cloak of Invisibility for herself.
"Keep guessing, little lioness," his voice soft like a lover's, eyes sharp like steel.
Bitter anger overwhelmed her: she lashed out with the Elder Wand, willing the magic through the glass to press Loki against the opposite wall where he was spread out like a butterfly, half pinned and unmoving. She let him go, immediately disgusted at herself. He lay in a broken heap at the ground for a moment before easing gingerly up. A binding spell was already on her lips by the time she felt herself pushed forward across the threshold through abruptly open doors and thrown at Loki's feet—then the cool hiss of a pneumatic seal as the doors slid shut behind her.
Loki no longer stood before her; in fact, she was slumped right where he had been moments before. She turned, standing, already guessing at the sight before her, but more wrong than she could have imagined. Loki was not the one at the controls.
Harry was, his eyes a pretty shade of electric blue.
Loki stood at the threshold, hands still laced behind his back. She tried to Apparate her way out of the glass cage, but uselessly: anti-Apparition wards were already up, and whatever power the Elder Wand had couldn't help her unravel them any quicker. Her ability to spell through the glass barrier seemed to have disappeared with it.
"Everyone has their give," Loki said, one hand playing over the lever that would leave her to the sky. She felt numb to the threat; perhaps this was better, this way. She had certainly idly wished for an accidental end any number of times before. "Yours is thinking that you've hurt someone." His smile twisted unpleasantly. "How touching, that you still seem to care, though you'd done nothing but lie all these years."
Her voice was distant, as if spoken from the ground so far below them both. "What have you done to Harry?"
Loki smiled, and gestured towards Harry. "Why don't you do the honors? You've been wanting to tell her all these years. You weren't the only one feeling some guilt about the, well. Lying on a daily basis."
Harry shook his head. His hand, unwavering, was at that lever, the one that decided her life. "You're assuming there's guilt," he said directly at Loki, "because you're still seeing me as a child. It's been twelve years, haven't I proved myself to you yet?"
Loki tutted. "Not until the day is won. But we are so close." And he patted Harry's head—just as one might a child. Her stomach twisted. Loki had gotten to Harry as well, when he was that young? Had he made the same promises to Harry—said the same things—
Her horror was mounting. "Harry—at St Mungos, did they really—did they find nothing—"
He laughed. "They never thought to check in the first place, Hermione, and you believed my little sob story hook, line, and sinker, that everyone was as suspicious of me as they were of you. You were the only one of us they doubted. Me, the Boy Who Lived? Never. Not after the War, when Loki let me see the Truth again. I was the one pushing for close observation on you, and the Ministry was happy to oblige. After all—Loki wanted to know everything about you, and I scarcely had time between his other errands to do it myself."
Pain shot through her, anger and loss as visceral as a burning brand. She felt her lips stammer out words. "Harry—Harry, if you're still there—if you can still hear me—"
Harry only laughed. "Twelve years is a long time. No matter what you did to me now, I'd be the only thing left of the Harry you thought you knew. Loki has shown me the Truth. Nothing can change that." He turned to Loki. "She'll be joining us as well, yes?"
She laughed mirthlessly. Harry had gotten some of Loki's crazy, if not his claws, after all.
Loki shook his head. His smile left her torn, shredded. She swayed where she stood. She had thought she could feel no less defeated, no less whole than she had before she had signed on to this mission, but here she was, everything taken out from under her and now thirty thousand feet to fall. "Not now, I don't think. Harry, my faithful Harry, could you ever trust a liar like her?"
"I'm not a liar," Hermione said hoarsely, what little concentration she had on breaking the wards now shattering with each shake of Harry's head.
"She's unstable," Harry said, his voice crisp, professional, every inch an Auror. The depth of his deception— "Until she's seen the Truth, I don't think she'll really be usable for field operations. Maybe intel. Maybe. Certainly not for what's coming next, even as a double agent—none of the rest of Fury's team trust her either. If I were them, I'd let her fall." He paused. "It might be wiser to bring her along now, just in case. She might resist at first, but you can make her See. She's almost there already, it wouldn't take much."
Loki shook his head. "Fury's got a soft spot for second chances," he said, eyes gleaming. "Besides—we need her willing."
Hermione's stomach roiled. She was nauseated. Did Loki need her consent for something he wanted to do to her, beyond the realm of magical coercion, or was this some sick fantasy of his? She'd never give it. Surely they saw that.
Or perhaps they thought her just that close to despair. In which case, perhaps they were not so wrong. She almost wanted to fall, in that moment.
She should have denied them. Should have shouted at them that she'd never help them, never go along with their plans, never aid them in any way. A thousand cliches rippled through her mind, like water flowing by in a river, and not a single one seemed to catch on her breath.
Loki only smiled, smiled as he always did, and with a smile disappeared.
They were both gone.
Harry had left her, just as Loki always had.
Numb, she restarted unraveling the wards. At least… at least there was no one to tell Fury about her conversations with Loki, now, but that was small consolation. Her heart had found a way to break into even smaller pieces: she felt like dust, unable and unwilling to move in her windless cage.
Coulson found her before she managed to take out the wards. "Pass code," he asked, brows knitting in obvious suspicion. Having been briefed on Loki's skill with shapeshifting, they had put a protocol in place specifically for these types of circumstances.
"Medusa," Hermione replied, looking up warily from where she stood. "I heard the engines come back online. What happened?"
"All systems now operational. Romanov managed to recover Barton—or at least his body. We're not entirely sure about his mind quite yet." He allowed for a slight smile. "Stark and Rogers repaired the engine seamlessly. Couldn't have asked for a better response."
She swallowed. "And Loki?"
"Gone, with the scepter." He paused. "We weren't expecting you to still be here, to be entirely honest."
She swallowed. "I—wasn't expecting him to leave me here either."
"My insinuation was a little more suspicious than that, unfortunately." His face was unapologetic. "More than a few think you might be a mole, and wanted you to stay right there in that cage. Cameras were conveniently nonfunctional for whatever happened down here." He looked at her plainly. "And Harry?"
Somehow she felt relief; finally, they were according her the level of suspicion and blame they should have in the first place. She felt judged, marked, and that somehow was better. "Harry's gone with Loki. Willingly. Some sort of magical coercion." She swallowed; she'd leave out the depth of the betrayal if she could.
Coulson cocked his head at her, fiddling with the control panel; probably re-instating comms. "And didn't take you? That's twice now, he's left you with us."
She looked over at Coulson. She looked every inch the double agent right now, and she knew it. "But you trusted me enough to open the doors for me anyway," she pointed out, feeling petty even as she said it.
Coulson smiled one of his Mona Lisa smiles, utterly unreadable. "Maybe," he said vaguely, and gestured. "You'll have to watch your step. The debris is a little big for the roombas."
Hermione's brow creased. "He had to have taken something else," she continued on. "This isn't adding up."
Did it ever? Bit by bit, maybe one day it would. It had to. Loki couldn't be mad. Part of her still refused to believe it.
"He also took off with a lot of the P.E.G.A.S.U.S. weaponry—Stark's saying he had already briefed you, well, briefly, on that particular program, so I'll spare you the details. Loki has plenty of ways to harness the Tesseract's power right now, to say the least."
With a sinking feeling Hermione remembered that with Harry's betrayal Loki also had the Cloak; that left him with all three Hallows in easy reach, if he chose to take her captive once more. She felt vulnerability squeezing at her throat. He had said something about needing her consent. Maybe that was all she had on him.
Coulson was continuing on, oblivious to her realization. "I assume Harry doesn't know anything that Loki wouldn't already."
She laughed, a little hysterically; if Coulson thought it anything other than a reaction at the shock of the situation he didn't say so. "No. No, he wouldn't. Loki apparently already has an in with you guys anyway, when he was using your Barton to infiltrate this helicarrier." They were working their way to the conference room. Hermione was distracted enough that she stubbed her toes on more than just a few bits of fallen paneling on the way there. It was oddly gratifying to see the shining perfection of the helicarrier humbled somewhat by the clutter. "But with Harry he'd be able to access a lot of Ministry vaults, which would have a lot of things of… significant interest. I can tell Kingsley that there's been a breach, but-" Here she swallowed. "It'll be Harry's word against mine, and I can tell you who they'd believe."
Coulson nodded grimly. "Pass it along anyway."
They had reached the conference room; everyone turned to face her, expectant. Hermione sent her Patronus skidding away, a slinking ocelot that bared its teeth at the assembled team before bounding off.
Coulson turned to Hermione. "No one here thinks it's your fault," he said, his voice almost kind, if not for the steel, the lie right underneath. "The best revenge will be kicking him in the ass. Literally, if you'd like. I'm sure we could arrange it once we have him in custody."
"Do you tell all your agents that?" she asked dryily.
"No," Fury cut in, eyeing her from the front of the table. "Just the ones we like."
She looked around at the table. Some were better at hiding their suspicion than others. "Sometimes," she said softly, "I think it'd be a hell of a lot easier if no one liked me at all."
So, for those keeping track of Aphelionverse, Loki got to Harry during the events of Here Be Monsters, though Hermione, of course, doesn't know this yet. It is briefly alluded to in Eschatology, Parenting, and You during the epilogue.